In the 1990s, the house at 1124 N. Austin Boulevard in Oak Park was one of the centers of Chicago’s underground hip-hop scene.
“It was like a hip-hop Animal House,” recalled Brian “Meta Mo” Hines, a well-known MC and member of the influential group Rubberroom, during a recent YouTube interview.
“It was debauchery and it was beats and rhymes and all kinds of stuff going on in that house. It was legend, on the real,” he said. “It was our culture and we held it down for Chicago.”
Hines, born in Englewood and raised in Maywood, died last month at 52. During that YouTube interview, he said he started rapping after hearing Public Enemy’s 1988 song “Rebel Without A Pause.”
The song opens with Jesse Jackson’s introduction of an early 1970s single by Stax Records vocal group, the Soul Children, called “I Don’t Know What This World Is Coming To.” Once Rev. Jackson’s Soul Children intro ends, we hear Chuck D’s pissed-off baritone rapping the first lyrics of “Rebel Without a Pause”:
“Yes, the rhythm, the rebel, without a pause I’m lowering my level …”
That Hines, a Chicago-area MC, would be inspired by New York MCs like Chuck D, who in turn sampled the raspy preacher-politician cadence of Rev. Jackson, demonstrates the fluid cultural exchange that enabled the rise of hip-hop.
But this cultural exchange would not have been possible without mediums to pass along cultural messages. Here’s a question that I don’t think is posed often enough: Where would pioneering acts like Public Enemy, and hip-hop more generally, be if not for public television?
Public TV, in turn, enabled music programs like the pioneering Video Music Box, the public access program that aired from 1983 to 1996 on WNYC-TV in New York City. Video Music Box host Ralph McDaniels would turn up on streets to interview everyday New Yorkers and show rap and R&B music videos during hip-hop’s Golden Age in the mid-1980s and early 1990s.
Importantly, the public-oriented model of broadcast TV in those days allowed a show like Video Music Box to exist for people who otherwise couldn’t afford to be on TV. That show helped build hip-hop as a cultural genre and as a subversive social force.
We see a similar dynamic with Channel Zero, a public access show in Chicago hosted by a guy named Coodie Simmons, most commonly known as Coodie.
“Channel Zero was able to keep its ears on the ground, uplifting emerging artists in ways that regular broadcasting didn’t,” writes Philip Thao. “Public access television (not to be confused with public broadcasting, like Sesame Street) originated in the early ’70s, thanks to Section 611 of the Communications Act. This amendment gave local franchise authorities the right to determine whether cable operators should carry public access channels. If they exercised this right, then the cable operators were required to set aside a limited number of free channels for public, educational and governmental use.
“Democratizing the medium allowed anyone to produce community-focused programming. Some might think of Wayne’s World or low-budget productions created by local oddballs, but there was nothing like Channel Zero on air. Whether it was on a packed el train or in the dimly lit tunnels of a Blue Line station, Coodie took his mic and camera everywhere.”
Today, Coodie is an established director who recently completed jeen-yuhs, a documentary on Kanye West that debuted on Netflix earlier this year. As an up-and-coming Chicago artist, West would benefit from the Channel Zero exposure.
If we think of communications systems like broadcast TV as particular modes of creating what the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas called “public spheres,” or “private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state,” then shows like Video Music Box and Channel Zero might be considered sub-modes within a mode, smaller publics within a public.
Importantly, sub-cultures that used public access channels to build and broadcast marginalized communities should not be confused with target demographics, which suggest passive audiences of consumers awaiting their collective manipulation by slick marketers.
Also important, those publics within publics that helped spawn whole cultural phenomena like hip-hop would not have happened without attendant legislation like Section 611 of the Communications Act — legislation that helped birth the careers of people like Kanye West, a Nazi sympathizer.
In the mid-1990s, the airwaves were de-regulated, effectively ending public access TV as we knew it and the cultural flourishing it enabled. Now we’re witnessing in real time the effective end of the democratizing impulse of Twitter, not long after activists from the Middle East to Minnesota were able to use the platform to mobilize against the powerful.
“The overall thing is that the world is insane,” said Meta Mo before his death. “It’s a big insane asylum and the men who run it, the politicians and the power dons, the billionaires, are like the doctors of an insane asylum and they’re the ones who distribute the drugs to keep the inmates of the insane asylum crazy.”
Ironically, laws like Section 611 allowed clear-eyed creatives like Meta Mo and Chuck D opportunities to jailbreak corporate asylums. We need a renaissance of those public-oriented laws, if not outright public ownership of communication systems, and we need to aggressively apply this public-orientation to our present world of platform capitalism to rein in the likes of lunatics like Elon Musk.